Swedish toddlers are ground zero for breaking gender roles

Gender equality in this egalitarian society is instilled from a young age, but some preschools are doing more than others.

 Madura McCormack and Sara Abdel Aziz

Along a narrow cobblestone path of Stockholm’s old town, children play in the gated front yard of their preschool. A little girl waddles around boisterously with a soccer ball tucked to her chest while her playmates, aged one to six, barrel out of playpens.

Inside, throw pillows and multiracial dolls litter the library, where fairy tales have been replaced with books that discuss same-sex couples, non-traditional family structures and stories with both male and female protagonists.

Teachers consciously address their class as ‘children’ or simply ‘friends’, steering clear of words like ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. The genderless word ‘hen’, which will be added to the Swedish dictionary in 2015, is used in place of ‘he’ and ‘she.

This progressive preschool in the Swedish capitol has taken the fight against sexual stereotypes into its own hands, placing the movement to break traditional gender roles at its core, a phenomenon that is gaining traction in highly egalitarian Sweden.

At Nikolaigarden, Lego bricks are intentionally placed next to the kitchen set, in hopes that no mental barriers are drawn between construction and cooking. Here, there are no ‘firemen’, rather ‘fire soldiers’.

“We all have traditional stereotypes in our brains. It is normal and natural we have to work against it. We have to change ourselves and not the children,” says Lotta Rajalin, director of Nikolaigarden.

Society expects men and women to be a certain way

Rajalin considers her school to be forward thinking, paying more attention to gender questions than mainstream Swedish preschools. By doing this, she claims the children will be presented with a wider array of life options.

The theory is that while humans are born with a sex, gender is a social construct, and treating boys and girls differently creates pressures to conform. .

“The expectations on girls and boys make them feel that they have to be in those roles, they don’t choose it, we chose it for them,” says Rajalin, whose multilingual staff are trained to be aware of how they interact with children. The school took the unusual step of filming themselves back in 1998 when they first began focusing on gender equality in the classroom.

By showing that princesses can also slay dragons and that there is no shame in boys playing with both dolls and cars, children learn that they are people and not categories.

“That is what our work is about, it’s about democracy. Every human being has the same rights, the same opportunities,” Rajalin asserts.

She hopes her small cohort of children will develop the self confidence to become whatever they choose to be and to question the stigmas of doing the ‘wrong’ profession, like being a female astronaut or male nurse.

The Swedish national curriculum does specifically require schools to break down traditional gender roles from preschool onward.

While Nikolaigarden is more progressive than most, they are not alone in pushing the agenda to young children.

Spreading to small communities

An hour out of densely populated Stockholm, in the tiny municipality of Gnesta, preschool children are scuttling around inside as their much older peers play out on the grounds.

“Everything I say and how I act have effects. Not all people are aware of this. And when you do this [place expectations] , you put people in a box,” says Malin Granberg, a teacher at Bjorkbackens preschool, which has been working with gender equality for the past three years.

Just like Nikolaigarden, the preschool in this town of 10,600 people believe children should not be constricted by narrow social rules. To them, the essence of the gender equality movement in schools is about inclusion and opportunities.

In order to remove gendered expectations, both preschools looked at their toys, play areas and literature, altering the environment. But it is not about taking things away from the children they say, rather about adding options.

“We looked at how we arrange the environment [of the preschool]. There is a place where there are girls things and a place where there are boys things,” says Ulrica Blume, a gender consultant for the Gnesta municipality which has had success with gender in its high school.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] scores, Swedish girls outscore their male counterparts  in almost every subject, something gender experts believe is caused by the different expectations being placed on each gender.

In Gnesta, they found that teachers expected boys to be less interested in school and to pay more attention to sport while girls were viewed as more hardworking. It was found that due to these expectation, girls received more attention than boys, who were spoken to with short sharp commands.

Nikolaigarden and Bjorkbackens are both quick to defend that they don’t meddle with the biological aspects, asserting that the entire idea of gender norms is created by society and not biology.

“We are not working with the biological sex, we are working with the culture social things,” says Rajalin, noting that the physical construction of gender is not the problem.

Nikolaigarden boasts a multiracial staff and toy selection

Nikolaigarden boasts a multiracial staff and toy selection

Impacts of pushing gender equality so young

Vocal gender critic blogger and mathematician Tanja Berqvist questions the point of engineering gender equality at such a young age.

“If they go through preschool for 5 years, and [afterwards] then they don’t have gender scientists surrounding them, suddenly they start behaving in a stereotypical way. And maybe this is just differences that nature has created. I don’t see the problem in having differences between the genders,” Berqvist says.

According to the teachers, the purpose is to build a foundation of gender equality that will eventually spread over the course of generations and prevent problems when they are older.

“You are born with one sex. Then your identity has to be the sex you are born with. Then you get stuck, this gives the individual so many problems, so you work [with these ideas] from when they are one,” says Granberg about Bjorkbackens preschool.

In order to combat discrimination and comply with the Swedish discrimination act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, these preschools say it’s important to present gender questions at a young age.

It is ‘equality’ not ‘neutrality’

According to them, resistance has also come from parents and outsiders who misunderstand and assume the work is simply an undercover feminist movement.

“Not everyone is happy… Sometimes the parents think we make the boys into girls… It’s not about that,” says Blume, who claims communication with parents in Gnesta has soothed tensions.

Lotta Rajalin and her schools have arguably faced the most backlash, after the opening of her second gender equal preschool in 2010 brought a slew of media coverage.

Media outlets covering the opening of Egalia referred to its methods as ‘gender-neutral’, a phrase that misinterprets and send the wrong signals, says Rajalin.

“I really don’t like the word ‘gender-neutral’, what is that? [The work] is about democracy, every human being gets the same value,” she explained.

Though the public outcry has since decreased, Rajalin says her staff members were hounded by critics through emails and calls. There were instances where protesters pasted hateful flyers outside the building.

Gender equality is arguably part of the Swedish identity, having the movement enshrined in its Education Act and through its push for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to be made law in the country. The Scandinavian haven is ranked fourth in the world for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum.

The teachers from both schools agree that although criticism is present, the public is mostly supportive of their methods. Children should be taken out of gendered boxes and shown that opportunities aren’t split by what society dictates.

Within a gender equal classroom of Nikolaigarden, children gather around the feet of their teacher as she strums a Swedish song. They listen intently as it is sung first with a male protagonist then with a female one. During the day, they will be made aware that different family structures exist, through a book about two male giraffes that adopt a baby alligator.

“They are open minded about differences, they know that people are different, and that we need different things, but we can still play together, that is life,” says Lotta Rajalin.